I’ve had previous experiences writing about Claire Denis’ superb and eerily disquieting White Material. This is her third feature (following her autobiographical debut Chocolate and the 1999 masterpiece Beau travail) set in West Africa. Until her early teens, she lived in Djibouti as the daughter of French civil servants.
During my first encounter with the movie, at Toronto in 2009, the experience was akin to a fever dream given the layered though hallucinatory imagery. It’s a jarring and intensely disassociate work, especially given how Denis plays with time and space in the movie. It unfolds in a bleak and hostile fictional outpost in in West Africa (the movie was shot in Cameroon). The imagery invokes all manner of recent terror and devastation, from the Ivory Coast to the Sudan, of a parched, ruined landscapes, a sky awash in smoke and a corpse-lined interior.
I’ve gone back to a movie a couple of times in the wake of Criterion’s superb new Blu-ray edition. If you’ve already seen it a couple of times projected, this is the ideal way to take the movie in. The menu tracks on high-definition videos have become so sophisticated and interactive, they allow for easy and interesting ways to go back and forth, fixating on an image a sequence, a line of dialogue, like looking at Ulysses or Light in August.
Isabelle Huppert plays Maria, a coffee plantation proprietress caught between warring factions of government soldiers and rebel armies trapped in an escalating civil war. In one of the most haunting images, an airborne French unit hovers above her, floating down black-colored “survival kits,“ and imploring her to leave, telling her they cannot ensure her safety. She turns them down, preferring to shore up what remains of family’s dissolving empire.
The political crisis mirrors her family’s deeper unraveling. Her former husband (Christophe Lambert) is involved in secret negotiations with the town’s corrupt mayor to apportion all or part of the coveted property. Her father-in-law (Denis regular Michel Subor), the putative owner of the land, is a ghost of a man. Most damaging, her own son (Nicolas Duvauchelle), about whom she cannot hold back her own disappointment, is a wastrel with a slippery hold on reality. The charismatic rebel soldier leader known as the Boxer (Isaach de Bankole) is seeking sanctuary at their property to recover from his wounds.
Watching the Criterion edition, I was struck less by how anarchic and free-floating the movie’s entire second half unfolds. Denis’ filmmaking is as sensational and tactile as ever. Nothing quite coheres logically or internally. The movie sharpens and lays bare Denis’ strengths as an imagist and a poet of the dispossessed. She ruptures the narrative track, elliptically playing with time and space in attaining a ravishing hallucinatory physical grounding of terror and disruption. The recurring use of water imagery, suggesting an innocence trampled, or repose denied, is particularly effective and striking.
The enigmatic title is also intricately woven into the movie’s developing and involving mysteries. The French word for “white,” blanc, has always for me suggested “blank,” “negative,” “annihilation.”
White Material is sustained by an eerie and annihilating sense of breakdown. Nothing quite coheres logically or internally. The movie unfolds as a fever dream, concentrating Denis’ strengths as an imagist and a poet of the dispossessed. Her best films are liberated from stories or plot.
(This is her first film in some time not shot by the great Agnes Godard, who was on another project and not available.) Denis is an interesting and invaluable example of assimilating the formal ideas and preoccupations of her mentors and predecessors, but making it very much her own, adopting it to her own sensibility, not simply plastering down what others did before her.
For instance, it’s noteworthy, I think, that the directors she apprenticed under, Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch, are drawn to solitary stories of dislocation and exile. Denis made a great documentary about Jacques Rivette. Her collaboration with Subor is especially telling that links her to Godard, most explicitly in Beau travail, where his character is given the same name Godard assigned him in his second feature, Le petit soldat.
“Africa is a woman,“ the great filmmaker and novelist Ousmane Sembene told me during an interview, in talking about his final work, Moolaadé. (Writing about Beau travail, Jonathan Rosenbaum once pointed out, Denis “captures the poetry and atmosphere--and, more subtly, the women--of Africa like few filmmakers before her.”)
Huppert’s own ferociously ravaged state leaves the strongest impression. Her splintered emotional consciousness becomes a haunting gateway to consider the material. Everybody pays, she explains to one government soldier. “That’s what leads to corruption,” he replies. The personal ruin becomes a startling commentary on the moral ramifications of French colonialism. It ends like a moment out of Conrad, a haunting and devastating “heart of darkness,” made real and plangent.